I defended my dissertation on August 19th, 2022. I passed! As of now I am more or less Dr. Pfiffer, ignoring some clerical tasks. I was completely overwhelmed by everyone's support and kindness during my defense and I was just ecstatic to be able to share the finish line with friends and family. It has been an extremely difficult and challenging four years and I was relieved to get my dissertation handed in and defended[1].

Celebrating with some champagne.

Doing a PhD is not easy. I have nuanced opinions about the PhD and the effects it can have on your life. I've commented on the PhD several times on Twitter, but many of those comments are small snapshots that don't accurately convey my full experience and perspective on the PhD. So, in the wake of my PhD, I thought it might be appropriate to try and collect the disparate thoughts I have about my PhD and whether I think the experience was valuable. Additionally, I have a lot of personal context about my relationship to education and to my mental health that is important to convey to fully understand why I feel the way I do, so there's some personal stuff in here.

I'll start at the beginning of my education and try and tell something like a linear story. First I want to start with my family background because it is the primary context through which I view my education. My home life was challenging and it ended up playing a large role in what and how I learned.

If you want the answer to the "should you do a PhD" question, skip to the bottom where I summarize my experiences.

Family background

My parents are both from a small town in upstate New York called Horseheads. Horseheads is an extremely podunk little town that has mostly been in decline over my nearly three decades of life, and it never really started out as a wealthy area. As a kid I spent many of my summers there with my grandparents on both sides. I recall it being hot, muggy, and full of bugs, very unlike the Oregon weather I was used to.

My mother was born into a working-class family. Her father was a painter and her mother a receptionist. My dad's family was also working-class – his dad was the night manager at a salt factory, and his mom was a school nurse for many years. Both of their families were large and poor, dad has three siblings, mom has 6 siblings. It was difficult for them to have new clothes or toys.

My mom served in the U.S. Army, like many of her siblings, and never pursued higher education. I consider my mother to be extraordinarily street-smart. She is a student of the soul – she wants to understand why we feel how we do, and what meaning there is to find in life. When I think of what I learned from her, I think of how she taught me to be kind, thoughtful, and curious.

My dad was the first in the family to attend a four-year university. At a young age he was fascinated with this whole "computing" thing that was happening. My understanding is that he built a COSMAC ELF himself when he was a preteen, and spent a lot of time tinkering and learning to write code. He studied computer science at a small state school in New York. He struggled in school just like I did, and I grew up hearing about how this person[2] who I thought of as the most intelligent person in the world was incapable of doing calculus. It always hung over my head – "if dad can't do this, why should I be able to?"

[2] One of the greater gifts I received from my father was his attempt to recreate this experience of building a computer. My brother and I were quite young when he had us build our own computers, I must have been somewhere between 5-7 when I built my first computer. I remember pinching my fingers in the case and getting a small wound. My dad's response was "It's not your computer unless there's blood in it."
Neither of my parents believed strongly in manhandling my education. My mother's belief was always that I would find my own way and it was important to provide agency, while my sense from my dad was that it just wasn't really his job. I was kind of left to my own devices for most of my education. My parent's didn't really check in on whether my homework was done, with the exception of several times when my teachers communicated expressly to my parents that something needed to be monitored or check in on.

Even for higher education, there was kind of an implicit assumption I'd figure it out somehow. When the ACTs came up, I had zero prep – I didn't even know they were happening or what they were. From my perspective, it was another standardized test that the school district made you take, and not an incredibly important test that can be a key determinant in which undergraduate schools will take you. I did extraordinarily well on the reading and writing portion (both 95th percentile) and abysmal on the math portion (20th-30th percentile). I know many students who have a similar level of educational attainment, most of whom had some form of coaching from their parents. I did not. I blundered my way through school using only what I could figure out, and this was in large part to my mother's intentional laissez-faire attitude and my father's unintentional one.

My parents relationship started to crumble in late middle school and early high school. This wasn't a big fracture, the way a bone might break if you fall from a ledge. This was a slow, crushing, splintering, as if someone put your femur in a crusher and put it on the slowest setting. My parents should probably have gone their separate ways in my pre-teens. They did not get divorced until I was 28, and lived in the same home for the entire duration. I won't describe the home situation, but rest assured my childhood home was permeated with this intangible black cloud that touched everyone's lives in insiduious ways. My brother acted in, I acted out, my mother closed off, and my dad retreated entirely. I went from a moderately athletic child to a morbidly obese teenager in short order, and found food to be a way to attempt to reconcile my splintering nuclear family.

I never noticed consciously what was happening. All I remember is acquaintances or friends coming over and commenting on the chilly aura of the home. They described things as feeling wrong, and I could never understand what they were talking about. Didn't their family have a molding jug of Arizona Green Tea placed spitefully in the foyer, uncleaned for two years? Didn't they have a pile of rejected gifts in the living room, and didn't their parents avoid eye contact and residing in the same room? I couldn't understand at the time, but it directed everything I felt and did.

I should mention too that my family is quite well off, but I never felt that way. It was a struggle to get access to basic things like clothing. We never went on vacations after I was eight or so. My dad wore shredded sweatshirts from his teenage years, wore boots with holes, and drove a beat-up 1986 Toyota MR2 with an algae-filled spiderweb crack all over the windshield. I found out much later in life that my dad's long-time career as an engineer put us well into the first-percentile wealth bracket, though my personal experience of our family was that spending money was a crime. It made you look ostentatious. My dad made us stop skiing in the winters because he didn't want people to think we had money. My brother and I stopped asking for things we thought we needed or thought would be fun because we didn't want to feel like we were asking for too much. I still struggle with communicating my needs and desires to this day.

My mom tried very hard to get my brother and I what we needed, but as my parents' relationship got more complicated it become difficult for her to get access to their shared money. The one thing she was adamant about was that my education should always be paid for, and even as I was struggling to pay for electricity in my early undergraduate years, she was always able to draw tuition money to get me through the basics of college. I believe my father never liked this – my sense was that he wanted me to pay my entire way through college, which as you may know is much harder to do nowadays than when he went to school.

Educational background

I have not been a conventionally good student for most of my education. Many of my past teachers would likely say something along the lines of "Cameron is smart, he just doesn't apply himself!", and would likely have done so starting from preschool all the way through undergraduate school. I struggled a lot with basic mathematical concepts. I never turned in homework, didn't do assigned reading, acted out in class, couldn't focus, and felt no impulse to succeed academically.

My stronger memories of my education start in elementary school. I recall learning times tables in second and third grade, and just sobbing because I could not figure out what to do. My teacher in both those grades was Maria Wickwire, an absolute saint – I recall her being so patient and caring with me while I cried in front of my times tables.

This kind of thing continued in basically every grade. Math was a persistent issue for me. In grades 6-8, I had the same math teacher for three years. Tammy Schraeder was my homeroom teacher and my math teacher, and she was again kind and patient while I cried over trigonometry and pre-algebra. Even at this time I was struggling with basic arithmetic.

In late middle school and early high school, my home life started to get complicated. My parents relationship was strained and getting worse. I internalized a lot of their interactions, and I started acting out in strange ways. I completely stopped turning in homework. In high school, I remember reading a book a day because I read in class and never paid attention to the lecture unless I'd finished my book early in the day. My grades were terrible.

The only reason I passed most classes was because there was often a "pass the final, pass the class" rule. I generally did okay when I sat down to work, but simply could not bring myself to complete homework at home. Most of the reason for this was the slow deterioration of my parent's relationship – when I was home, I was trying to escape. I played Second Life for hours and hours a day. Anything to pretend whatever was going on was fine.

I ended up finding a life and a home in the theater department. In a lot of ways, theater was amazing for me. I found a community where previously I had been completely adrift. I found friendships challenging (and still do) and it was so refreshing to be around people I liked, who liked me. I even found my now ex-wife, a person who I still regard very highly. Theater gave me a purpose and a community, and I started to think more about my trajectory in life and what I wanted for myself.

I ended up going to a community college. There was never any pressure from either of my parents to pick a school or decide where to go. I never applied to any schools other than the community college – it just seemed like something to do, and my parents were fine with paying for it. I recall trying to do a computer science associate degree, becoming frustrated with learning c++ and the associated math. I leaned into my theater career and switched to taking many more theater courses.

The ETC Congo, the lighting console I spent a lot of time working with.

I spent most of the hours I had at the theater at Portland Community College. I loved working in tight crews of skilled people. I was a lighting technician and designer, and the feeling of being in a team was just pure exhilaration. I was strong and getting stronger. I loved learning about carpentry, metalworking, rigging, electricity, anything I could get my hands on. Theater gave me the space to be useful to people in a way I had not experienced before and it was the greatest experience in the world. And people wanted to pay me! I got drafted into the rental crew at the theater, and I got to work and make money in these tight teams.

My ex-wife and I eventually got married around the time I finished my two years at community college, and we both went to Southern Oregon University (SOU) to continue our respective theater careers. SOU is very much a teaching school. It's small but had a great theater program. I was terrified to try for a better school because of cost – I didn't want my mother to have to siphon off too much money from my parent's shared funds, so rather than ask I went to an extraordinarily cheap school.

The school was good for me. The instructors were good, the theater program was excellent, and Ashland, Oregon is one of the most beautiful towns in the world. I engaged a little more than I had in high school, but my grades generally remained quite poor until I started a technical theater club with some other folks.

The goal of the club was to send SOU theater students to the USITT conference, which is a big entertainment technology conference. We found out that if you sent a club representative to this committee you could get money for the club to do things. I volunteered to go because it seemed interesting. When I got to the representative meeting at the start of the year, they asked if anyone would like to join the committee of representatives that would allocate funds to the clubs. Thinking this would make it more likely that I could get funds for my club, I joined the committee and stayed for an hour after the main meeting. In the smaller meeting, the school representatives asked if anyone would like to chair the committee, to which I thought "gee, another way to get money for my club". I raised my hand and chaired the committee for the academic year.

Working on the allocations committee was awesome. I got to think about our $100k budget, who it would go to. It was social and engaging. I thought I should take some accounting classes for fun to supplement the experience. I remember being the only non-business major in my accounting classes and having an absolute blast – "Guys! At the bottom of the balance sheet, the numbers are the same! Can you believe it?!" I would exclaim to the business students who could not care less.

I started taking finance courses too because it seemed like a natural extension. I recall my first finance class. Dr. Curtis Bacon was the instructor. In the first class, he covered the time value of money and I was just blown away. You mean to tell me that 90.90 today is 100 in a year at a 10% discount rate? Wild stuff.

I started doing really well in my classes. I was acing all the accounting and finance classes. Multiple teachers recommended some kind of graduate school because it was too late to change my major from theater to business. I listened to them and started preparing for graduate school. I was still terrible at math. I took the GMATs and was in the 30th percentile for math. To solve this, I would wake up at 4am every morning and do practice GMAT math questions for two hours a day, sometimes more. I was slowly learning all the algebra and geometry that I had resisted in my K-12 years. I took a calculus class, which I had to get special approval to take because I did not have the pre-requisites, and placed third in the class that year. I loved calculus now and found it easy.

I managed to get my GMAT math score to the 60th percentile, and applied to three masters schools, though again I still had no idea how to do this or what schools to target. My mother couldn't help and my father and I were mostly estranged at this point, even if he would have had a strong opinion. I ended up getting accepted to the Masters of Finance program at the University of Reading, England. I was accepted to a few other places, but I chose Reading because England seemed interesting.

I really liked learning about finance there. And I was a great student. I really started to excel – my grades were great, I stood out in the cohort, and I had a wonderful time. After the year was up I went back to Oregon to look for work. People didn't really want to hire me. The theater arts degree threw people, nobody knew where Reading was. I applied to well over 150 positions and never heard back.

This company, ACA Compliance Group, reached out to me. They were a large investment consultancy in a small town in Southern Oregon. I worked here and quite liked it, though the pace was perhaps too relaxed. It was a lot of work in Excel and rotating data. I was bored quickly by this style of work and sought to automate it – I had text files of VBA macros written to accelerate a lot of basic tasks I was doing. Management found out about this and asked if I'd like to work on the engineering team, which provided an in-house Excel ribbon that automated much of the company.

I started doing my normal analyst job and software development for the firm. It was the best. I loved engineering and learning how to write C#, make people's work faster, and build things. But I still felt that I could do more. The accelerated learning I'd undertake to get to grad school was addictive – I wanted to go back to school, to see what I was made of. I was studying for the CFA at the time, and decided to also study for the GRE.

When I took the GRE, I again scored extraordinarily high in the verbal and written portions, and now after my masters and the prep for the GMAT, I scored in the 85th percentile for math. This is generally considered still a bit low for finance PhDs, but I figured I'd apply to schools anyway to see if I got in anywhere[3].

[3] One of the faculty at UO one told me "Why are you here? You should be at Cornell", to which I responded that I had tried and they didn't want me.
I believe I applied to the University of Oregon, MIT, Cornell, and the University of Washington. I only got in to the University of Oregon, and I found out later I was 7th on the waitlist. I was ecstatic anyway and really happy to attend. I quit my job and started the PhD in August of 2018.

The PhD

The first year of an economics or finance PhD is brutal. Make no mistake about that. You are essentially run through a meatgrinder of econometrics, probability theory, economic theory, and various field-specific courses. The grades don't matter at all but nobody believes it. Everyone in your cohort is about as Type-A overachieving as you could imagine. Imposter syndrome shows up for the first time in full force – she seems like she's got a handle on all of this and I am so confused! Why am I doing this PhD? Why am I so bad at everything? It's never just you – everyone feels this way, everyone feels dumb, and the people who don't feel dumb are not particularly introspective.

I worked all the time during my first year. It was about what I expected to be doing, and I was happy to do it all because it fit a preconceived notion of what it meant to be scholarly and studious, and this was genuinely my first time being scholarly and studious at an academic institution. Where previously I had flunked or skated by, now I was finishing the homework the night it was assigned and doing the board work for the business school PhD students when we met to review on Monday. Further, I felt I had to be truly excellent because of my background – talk more, be smarter, work harder. Everyone else had parents who guided them through school or studied something like math or economics, and I was just some dude who liked theater and failed most of my math classes. I also wanted to show to my parents that I was capable of doing a hard academic thing ("look! see what I can do?").

The first year was also when my marriage really started to struggle. It can be difficult to give your partner the attention they deserve when you are doing a PhD. You work and study on the weekends and feel guilty for even the barest moment of pleasure. My social life was always extraordinarily weak and it deteriorated even further during the PhD – I was married and I just didn't really feel that I fit in well with the single people in my cohort. It's never been an easy thing for me to make friends and I found it so much harder to do so in graduate school. All this made me feel even worse with my family context – I am a bad spouse! I am failing, just like my parents.

The first year came and went quickly, though. Time flies when you're buried in a book with limited social interaction, working every single day. After your first year is over, you have to start working on research. I was fortunate enough to have a fixation on a field (market microstructure) when I got to grad school, so my first year paper came together quite quickly. It is as many first-year papers are: poorly written, lacking a point, hopelessly lost in math I mostly just thought was cool.

The second year is when things start getting more interesting. You have much less coursework to do, and so you can turn a little more into research. I found this to be difficult. The big thing I learned about myself in the second year is that I can spin my wheels for an eternity if I am left to my own devices, as you often are in a PhD. The University of Oregon has a fairly lax approach to its PhD students. I felt this very hard – I started to become depressed and inactive, slow, unresponsive.

The second year in our program is also the year when you take your comprehensive exams which determine whether you are allowed to continue in the program. In my first year there, one of the older students was failed and his cohort mate just barely skated by. It felt entirely possible that I would fail. Looking back, I know I was stressed out about this, but at the time I felt cool and collected even as my mood started worsening.

Enter the COVID pandemic. The pandemic started around my Spring term, meaning the remaining studying for the comprehensive exams was to be done from home. I do not work well exclusively at home (I prefer a hybrid office). My wife and I had also just gotten a puppy about a week before the pandemic, and I was now trapped in a home where I was fully aware I was failing my duties as a husband and surrounded by a creature my ex and I lovingly called "The Poopshark" for reasons I will let you infer.

I managed to do all my studying, however, and passed the comprehensive exams at the end of July 2020. I felt nothing about this, which for those of you who have experienced depression is a pretty common experience. I was starting to struggling with daily suicidal ideation. My mood was now completely untenable: I was irritable, at times angry, and generally unpleasant to be around. I sought counselling but was not able to connect with the correct therapist (recall that at this time everyone needed a therapist). A little less than a month after I passed my exams, in late August, my wife and I separated and made plans to file for divorce shortly after.

My third year was basically a wash. I couldn't move or think or do anything at all. The PhD life was completely unfulfilling. I was working hard for something I didn't care about at all, for people I felt didn't care about me, and worse, I felt terrible for my perceived and actual failures as a life partner. I would not generally say I accomplished much during this year and I suspect faculty and peers would agree. I deteriorated a lot. I was frequently at risk and my weight went up to 230lbs, the highest it had been since my teens.

Graduating early

In my fourth year, I was profoundly lucky. Shoshana Vasserman invited me to visit Stanford during the academic year, and I accepted! I got to move to Palo Alto, where I found a tremendous amount of joy. I started biking again, and meeting people, dating, exploring, and having fun! I was focused on making sure that I afforded myself time to live and laugh and play, rather than repeat the mistakes of the first year that hastened my descent into depression. I met someone (an extremely lovely someone!) who I am still with and who makes me laugh.

Here I am with Patricia a few minutes after my dissertation defense.

I decided a few months into my Stanford visit that I wanted to graduate and move past my PhD. I wanted to live in the Bay area where I had found new people and experiences. My advisor, Ro Gutierrez, was supportive and respected my decision not to attend the job market, and helped me sketch out a plan to graduate early. I split my time at Stanford between projects for Shosh and trying to get my dissertation off the ground. Eventually, I left Stanford in early July to teach a summer course at the University of Oregon and complete my dissertation.

The two months I've spent here in Eugene have been brutal. Teaching and writing more or less continuously have been really hard. Fortunately my hard work paid off! I defended my dissertation, it went well, and now I'm off to greener pastures.

Would I recommend a PhD?

People have been asking me this a lot lately, and my knee-jerk reaction is to say no do not do that to yourself. But there's more here! My situation is not everyone's situation. I can say for myself that the PhD has coincided with the worst years of my life and it is not even close.

However. It is reductive to assume that the PhD caused this horrible time for me. I have come to think of my PhD as a tremendous blessing that came at an equally tremendous cost. I thought I was invincible, that I had no mood disorders, no anxieties. That I could push my mind as far as I wanted with no cost.

The PhD revealed to me how false this was. I am fragile, just as everyone else is. We are all fragile. We need love and acceptance and humor. People have to exercise! They need to go outside, or read a book for fun, or sit in a hammock. One simply cannot read paper after paper for days on end without falling apart. Everyone has different limits, certainly, and I found mine. I found them hard. I was at risk numerous times of doing some very stupid things to myself because I had crossed the line unwittingly, but the act of crossing that line, an act afforded to me by my PhD, gave me the opportunity to introspect and try to determine what it was that I needed to be happy.

Is a PhD going to make you happy? Maybe not. A PhD is difficult, and it is a good way of introducing you to chronic workaholics with limited social capacity, similarly battered senses of work-life balance, and an occasionally unreasonable dedication to correctness. Few of these things nourish the soul. In my case, I suffered with the ultimate benefit of personal insight. There are other ways to get insight that are less isolating, painful, and challenging.

This too is reductive, though, because the PhD comes with substantial perks. The PhD is true freedom. If I didn't want to work, I probably could have just disappeared for two weeks with little consequence. Some may never even have noticed that I was gone. I could study what I wanted, learn whatever I felt was interesting. These things are all amazing perks to the naturally curious, and I indulged in them to the detriment of my personal life. But done correctly, it is possible to build a PhD for yourself that permits you a balance between this freedom to meander and the cost of excluding yourself form the rest of the world.

Further, having a PhD, particularly a finance PhD, gives you a lot of credibility! It opens you up to a world of interesting and fun roles where you can continue to be curious and engaged. You also can work much easier jobs (coming from a former stagehand – academics barely work, it's a joke to me sometimes how little I do now). I no longer believe that I will reside at or below the poverty line until I die. This is not nothing! It is an important perk that can enable me to live a more balanced, peaceful, and fulfilling life.

In my case, I found peace knowing that there are no more academic ladders to climb. I am done with getting accolades, and now I can find work that satisfies my interest and does not kill me. I am happy that I am finally credible – people no longer look at my CV and see a stagehand with a strange background. They see a capable individual who did a hard thing and remains curious and engaged. Additionally, I found out who I am! I know now that I am predisposed to severe unipolar depression, that stress can cause extreme reactions in me, and that I need to see and speak to interesting people about things other than asset prices. I found beautiful and lovely people with lovely minds! These are all a gift I would never want to return.

It did cost me. It cost me money – as an engineer, I was painfully aware of my opportunity cost. Even now, I am unlikely to usurp the lost wages from some hypothetical career in tech. It also hurt me, emotionally, with a frequency unmatched by any other experience I've ever had. I would not say that the PhD cost me my marriage, for that is too convenient a scapegoat, but it did make it more challenging to address problems which were likely too big to resolve at any rate.

The short answer here is that there is not one. PhDs are hard, and unique, and you may or may not find what you were looking for going in to the PhD. But maybe you'll find what you weren't looking for, which was exactly what I needed.

Cameron Pfiffer. Last modified: April 10, 2024. Website built with Franklin.jl and the Julia programming language.